We donned the crampons and crossed the Lewis Glacier at sunrise heading toward the base of the wall. A short scramble and we were at the base. There were lots of options at the base and after some debate I launched off on the sharp end. I felt like a rabid dog tearing after a new-found bone. So much had led up to this day.
The rock was clean and beautiful granite and the temperatures were mid 40’s and warming.
I led up and ran it out til the rope stretched in its finality. And did it again all the way to the base of what we thought was the supposed crux of the climb. I looked up at the huge chimney on the left and overhanging corner and crack system on the right and thought, ‘yes this looks like a crux’.
I launched into it and with some difficulty pulled the first part of the route. It seemed much harder than 5.8 that’s for damn sure and as I climbed it only got harder… and harder… and up above looked like a difficult overhanging finish. Could I do it? Well, yes I think I could have mustered through it. But was that the right choice?
YOU’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!
About one hundred feet up the pitch my mind started screaming what was becoming quite obvious, “You’re Going the Wrong Way!” So instead of ignoring it and feeding my ego to fire the rest of the pitch, I plugged in a nut and began to lower off.
Damn! Arms torched, sweating and generally pissed off, I took the lead around the corner and boom, there it was, the very obvious MacKinder’s Chimney.
I was frazzled at this point and said to Josh, “Well damn, you might as well just take the lead.”
Josh in his calm soothing demeanor replied, “Well I’m happy to do it but if you think it would be good for your head then go for it.” Ahh the beauty of a supportive partner! It is so important to recognize when your partner just needs a little prodding to move through some frustrating emotions. Josh did that for me and I am glad he did.
Me: “Well okay, it looks like I should just wedge my body in that chimney and exit at the top, what do you think?”
“I think that’s the wrong way, just climb the face and traverse in from the other side. Look, there’s a pin up there.”
“Ah, okay then, the altitude must be getting to me. Here we go.” The climbing was actually quite enjoyable 5.8 climbing. No stress, just interesting and steep moves. The hard boots made the climbing extra fun.
From the top of the chimney Josh took the lead and we cruised up some beautiful moderate rock, across the massive face and up toward Bally’s Bivy and the ridgeline denoting the midpoint of the climb. We had been warned that the climbing gets tricky at this point.
This is where you cross over to the facing ridgeline and climb up the west face, which is filled with snow and ice. We had not been able to discern the route from below and at this point we were pretty much following our nose.
The clouds began to form and the mountain mist soon was enveloping us as we made our way through the clouds and up the mountain toward the summit.
We pulled out the ripped pages of the route description which were generally non-descript, and I went with what seemed to make sense considering the current mountain conditions, the aesthetic line and what looked like it would “go.”
What had looked good initially quickly turned into difficult climbing and soon we realized that we were no longer on the “normal” route.
However we did spy several fixed anchors, which led us to believe that we were climbing a portion of the rappel route. This route did not have any rating or line on the description and we would find out later that this is “never climbed.”
This is where things began to get really exciting. I kept on leading and the climbing involved mixed snow, ice and steep unknown roofs and stemming on super exposed terrain. Knowing we were off route added to the excitement because every move is truly into the unknown. Strenuous moves up toward the next hold… will there be something up there? Yes! Thank-goodness!
Climbing was hard with the big pack with all our bivy gear, and the added element of altitude as we climbed up and past 16,000 feet. Although challenging, we pieced it together and moved up the mountain as we were enveloped in the continuous thick afternoon mist. After a few more pitches of climbing I went to pull out the route description again to check on our progress and position on the mountain.
WHERE’S THE ROUTE DESCRIPTION?
To my surprise the route description was nowhere to be found. Actually, if I am honest I wasn’t really surprised I had lost the it (those of you that know me well can attest), just annoyed I couldn’t find it! After rifling through every pocket several times (I know I already checked this pocket but I will look again anyway) we came to the unfortunate conclusion that the route description had somehow gotten out of my pocket and blown away across the mountain. Good one. It felt like something out of the Blair Witch Project when they start going crazy and one of them just throws our the map because it won’t help anyway.
So there we were. Perched precariously on the west side of Mount Kenya, somewhere about 16,200 feet in altitude, enveloped in mist, surrounded by rock, snow and ice, wind blowing, off route, with only our intuition to guide us to the top.
ALPINE MOUNTAINEERING: IT’S KIND OF LIKE FUN, BUT DIFFERENT
The next few pitches were exactly why I go into the mountains. Climbing up some unknown path toward an elusive summit amidst adverse conditions. Josh took the lead once again and climbed a beautiful pitch combining stemming, chimney, face climbing and turning corners to an incredible exposed small ledge. We knew the normal route was somewhere over to the right, and it was my first intention to get there. Exploring that possibility would require committing moves off the belay ledge with no gear placements and a delicate traverse on very small holds on some random run-out pitch.
I stepped up and led out over a bulge and some twenty feet up or so was able to get in token alien protection piece, allowing me to investigate. The moves would require difficult exposed down climbing where the second would be left with a potential large fall. No Dice. I traversed left and turned the corner heading up the unknown western ridgeline. Snow, ice, sketchy chalkstones and challenging terrain led us up to yet another crux pitch. And this one was the gem of the route.
As the mist fully enveloped us and the wind continued to howl we climbed an exhilarating series of steep overhangs with exposed stemming and committing reaches. Simply awesome!
Two more rope stretching pitches and I came over the ridgeline and across the gully of the “normal route.” We were back on route and heading toward the summit up the final stretch of easy climbing. I howled as Josh stepped up and over the final moves and there we were – staring across the vast African mountain-scape.
Glistening sun ripped the cloud bank and we were standing on the summit of Mount Kenya!
Soon there after the clouds dunned a beautiful red hue as we snapped our summit photos and screamed with success! Emotions overwhelmed me. It seems like the summit of a mountain brings it all together. Every ounce of making the trip happen, all the things you have left behind, all the things you want to do or achieve in your future – it all comes to a head on the mountain top.
It is in those moments that life truly is sweet.
We made our way to the Howell Hut and began the process of a nice brew up by melting snow.
As we brewed the water, it was my turn to experience the AMS. Emotional exhaustion and being “on” for the entire day had taken its toll. The altitude at 17,000 feet didn’t seem too bad initially, no real difficulty breathing. But as I lay in my sleeping bag I felt exhaustion pour over me. I was done and it was time to rest.